“A Gladys Miracle”, the Sunday papers shouted. The miracle narrative has left the station. We will soon, no doubt, be adding “historic” and, dare one say it, “unprecedented”, to the story of the Upper Hunter by-election. Really?
Was the by-election win for John “Pork-Barrell-aro” and the Nationals either a miracle, or worthy of right-of-centre celebration? Yes, there was a clear swing to the Government. But it wasn’t a miracle.
What very clever positioning, though. Not only to claim the underdog status without making a meal of it like what’s his name in Western Australia did, but to embed the word “miracle” in the psyche of the fourth estate from the get-go. At a single stroke, win, lose or draw, you have covered all possible outcomes in the damage limitation game. Subtly, too, the “miracle” word puts you up there on a par with that other storied Liberal miracle worker of 2019. It is money in the reputational bank.
On closer inspection, however, there are a number of other lessons to have emerged from the Upper Hunter affair, lessons that should put to rest any talk of miracles. There are five main take-out messages from last Saturday.
First, the political class as a whole and both major parties are seriously on the nose. Just reflect on the fact that the big parties – between them – scored barely 50 per cent of the primary vote. Fully half the people wanted neither major party to win. This outcome would have been thought astonishing a few years back. The two, leading, right-of-centre minor parties, combined, gained a respectable quarter of the primary vote, despite their inability to promise anything to the locals. More on the importance of this anon.
Second, despite Pork-Barrell-aro’s claim that the “Nats are back”, well, sorry mate, but the Nats are not back. They are in slow but inexorable and permanent decline, and are clinging to electorates like Upper Hunter by the seat of their pants and with enormous luck this time around. In 1995 – not a good year for the Coalition – the then Nats’ member, George Souris, scored a tick under 70 per cent of the primary vote. That’s right, 70 per cent. In 2011, a much better year for the Coalition, he scored a still impressive 55 per cent of the primary vote. Last weekend, the Nats obtained less than a third of the primary vote. A truly meagre, indeed an anemic, outcome that may get lost in the inevitable focus on the two-candidate preferred result.
Third, One Nation’s decision to run in the by-election halved the substantial primary vote (of 22 per cent) achieved by the Shooters Fishers and Farmers in 2019. This was, in hindsight, not a good play. It reminds us, yet again, of the characteristic, counter-productive splintering of the minor parties on the right.
Fourth, the way that optional preferential voting played out here killed what little chance Labor ever had – remember, this is not a Labor seat, as its woeful 17 per cent primary vote in 2011 showed – in the Upper Hunter. Nearly two thirds of minor party votes were exhausted ballots, and although the SFF preferenced Labor, their halved vote from 2019 meant that the potential this time for a larger flow of preferences to Labor simply vanished. Here, the Nats got very lucky.
Fifth, all elections in regional areas are now auctions for grant-largesse from Macquarie Street. Regional voters see elections as opportunities to “get stuff”. The Nationals have always been happy to oblige here. They have never been anything much more than a party of sectional geographic interests. Now that they are no longer remotely conservative by nature, the Nats can only survive by continuing to outbid their opponents, of whatever ideological stripe. (As an aside, the descent of regional electoral politics to its current low level of principle and ideas is perhaps best exemplified by the vote this time around of the Liberal Democrats, the libertarian rump party. From an already low base of a couple of thousand primary votes in 2019, the party that wants much less government intrusion in our lives went over the proverbial cliff this time around, staggering as it did to a mere few hundred votes. Seemingly, the champions of individual freedom were punished severely in the age of the Covid security blanket and of the incontinent spigot of endless, unapologetically politicised local community grants).
This is a sad outcome for those of us who might wish to see our parliamentary members do more in a vibrant representative democracy than merely bid at auction for Treasury funds.
There was genius, mind you, in the NSW Government’s strategic approach. Going to a by-election so quickly after the seedy allegations concerning the previous member, rather than toughing it out, was an inspired decision by the Government. First, the wound – or at least one of Gladys’s many wounds – was cauterised. Like Darryl Maguire, Michael Johnsen is now out of sight, out of mind. Michael who? Second, in the age of Covid and of low-information voters with much reduced expectations of their leaders, incumbents are so electorally rewarded for “keeping us safe” that they are almost a shoo-in. (“Safe and secure” government, as the Premier called it in her clever, subliminal messaging). This is especially the case when the current crop of Australian opposition leaders is so forgettable. Who among us could even name all the opposition leaders? I can’t. (The Opposition Leader in New South Wales is called Jodi McKay). Like most opposition leaders down the years, they find it almost impossible to get traction, even when the governments they face are sub-par. But when they, like the current lot, do not even oppose, voters must be thinking, what on earth is the point of them? All in all, the early talk of a “miracle” was merely a clever feint by Gladys, a stunt designed to make us forget that, in these new-normal times, for a government to lose an election (or by-election) would be against the grain. The real surprise would have been for the Nats to have lost Upper Hunter.
Upper Hunter was no miracle, Gladys. Rat cunning, riding the Covid myth, promising the goodies that flow from occupying the Treasury benches and, by chance, avoiding death-by-preferences at the hands of the minor parties, got the Nationals home. Keeping Matt Kean under “witness protection” for the duration of the campaign probably didn’t hurt. But the good burghers of the Hunter Valley should note that Kean is still the minister for killing the coal industry, by-election or no by-election. Ah, coal. That would be the industry that keeps most of them in employment. A mere 50 per cent score on primary votes by the major parties suggests deep cynicism, and rewarding the Government with a win, however hollow, suggests either naivete or a venal electorate with both eyes firmly fixed on getting its share of the ever-shrinking post-Covid pie. Or both.
The NSW Government of “zero net liberalism” recently turned ten.
On its third, unaccountably lauded party leader, ruled by back-room lobbyists who have created a peerless, vertically integrated political machine, steered by factional warlord-ministers of unvarnished leftist leanings, indifferent ability but massive clout, and reeling under the weight of multiple, ongoing scandals relating either to corruption or to alleged sexual misconduct, perhaps the bigger miracle than Upper Hunters is that the Government of the Premier State not only survives, but garners such praise.